How to Relax When You Don’t Know How to Relax

My husband can spend hours solving wooden logic puzzles and online adventure games. Me? I get annoyed within the first hour, lamenting the fact that there’s an hour of life I can’t get back. As for the adventure games, I have less of an interest in solving them as I do about enjoying the cool aesthetics of the virtual world I’ve become immersed in. And while I find my yoga practice refreshing, organized movement is decidedly less relaxing for my better half. 

The point is, everyone relaxes differently. Therefore, telling an executive working 80 hours a week to try meditation and a nice relaxing bath might not go over as well as you may have attended. 

This article will not tell you what to do to relax, but it is going to offer suggestions for finding out what relaxation means for you and what you personally find relaxing. 

So, let’s get started…

  7 Tips for People Who Don’t Know How to Relax

  1. Recognize That You Don’t Have to Earn It. As a society, we value productivity, a bad trait we adopted during the Industrial Revolution and never fully recovered. Wearing our “workaholism” like a badge of honor only leads to chronic stress, illness, poorer relationships and a boatload of unhappiness that can’t be countered with a few corporate “wins.” It’s not a matter of “deserving” a break. It’s the danger of what happens to our bodies and minds when we don’t relax. Stop viewing relaxation as a “luxury” and more as a necessity. 
  2. It Doesn’t Have to Be Productive. In Fact, the More Useless, the Better. So, if you’re like me and always turning your hobbies into a side hustle or new business venture … think again. Sure, if it helps to tell yourself that learning how to play an instrument is good for your memory and brain, and could be a useful skill at parties, have at it. But you don’t have to find a way to monetize every activity. Seek out activities that are fun just for fun’s sake. If it’s just one more thing on your To Do list, then it might be the wrong relaxation remedy for you. 
  3. Begin By Exploring How You Feel. Some people really have no idea what relaxes them. They haven’t taken the time to figure it out. Do some reflecting and ask yourself, “When are the times in my life when I felt the most at peace? What was I doing? Who was I with (or was I alone)?” Are there ways to recreate those experiences and activities? Alternatively, it may involve trying different things: meditation, sports, a hobby … whatever it is. Stop yourself in the process and check in on how you are feeling. Ask yourself, “Am I at ease? Do I feel grounded and content in this moment?” And after the event, reflect on how it made you feel in the long and short term. A word to the wise here, if the ‘event’ is binge-eating your favorite dessert, it might provide pleasure in the short time, but may not leave you feeling so hot hours later. Relaxing moments should have lasting effects. 
  4. Get it On Your Calendar. Take Planned Breaks and Vacations. There’s a reason we have our best ideas in the shower, at 3 am after waking up from a dream, and while on vacation. In all of those scenarios, we’re often in a more relaxed state … and that’s where the magic happens. If you’re having trouble recognizing that breaks and vacations are a necessity not a luxury, remind yourself that in addition to being healthy for our physical and mental states, relaxing opens the door to creativity, and we end up more productive because of those built-in breaks … more so than had we not taken them. 
  5. Create a Ritual Around Relaxation. Whether it’s a minor break, such as a few deep breaths and a short meditation, or a longer break, such as a vacation, create any type of routine that preps your mind to relax. For example, I can reflect on how peaceful I feel at that moment before I fall asleep, and immediately my face and neck soften. If I think about having a shoulder massage, immediately my shoulders relax away from my ears. In addition to imagining how you feel during moments where you’ve felt relaxed, add a process that helps you develop that mindset. For example, it might be shutting down your computer and putting it away, turning off your phone, and taking a hot shower. Perhaps it’s actually cleaning a corner of your house prior to whatever activity you’ve got planned. Or maybe it’s the ritual of going for a short walk to unwind after work in preparation for a longer vacation. Whatever it is, build in a few tools that help set the stage to relax. 

These last two mindfulness tips come from my wise friend and colleague, trained coach, Cera Meintzer…

6. Remember Your Biological Nature. As divorced from nature as we humans are, it can be helpful to remember that we are still part of the natural world. We follow the same rhythms and can benefit from following nature’s lead. Any time we do so, we support our own nervous system by working with its natural states. Spend more time active in the summer and eating the foods that naturally grow in that season. Engage in more relaxation and sleep in the wintertime, when there is less energy expenditure and more darkness to sleep during. Take notice of nature, and copy its patterns when you can.

7. Slow Down and Savor. As Einstein said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” To savor requires slowing down, intentionally noticing and paying attention to detail. Food is an easy thing to savor; eat slowly with nothing else to distract you, and focus on the taste and feel of each bite. What do you notice about your food? Savor the way a blanket feels on your lap. Savor the smell of your coffee or tea, and savor the sound of your friend’s laugh. See how long you can keep your attention on each item, and notice how gratitude naturally boils up when you give your caring attention to small, sensory details. Choose to experience the miracle of life.

Most importantly, don’t give up and accept defeat, claiming, “I can’t relax.” You may have had a lifetime of not relaxing and your body and mind need retraining on how to do it. If it doesn’t go according to plan, that’s okay. Celebrate the little wins, and keep fine-tuning until you gradually learn what relaxation means for you. 

Written by Board-Certified Positive Psychology Health & Wellbeing Coach, Danielle Palli, and featuring Gerontologist and trained Mindfulness Coach, Cera Meintzer

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